February 04, 2006

Olympic Wrestling With Jane Roos

The Canadian Olympic Committee and its international counterparts regularly get bad press over their aggressive defense of their Olympic trademarks. Every few weeks it seems that there's a story about the USOC sending a cease-and-desist order to some bizarre "Olympics" or another. I don't usually comment on those stories, because I don't understand all the legal issues, and because frankly they are all pretty much the same.

The most recent mini-controversy , however, is a little bit different. This time, the offended group includes a significant number of Canadian Olympic athletes.

In 1997, a former athlete named Jane Roos started the "See You in Sydney Fund," a not-for-profit organization that collected donations from ordinary Canadians, and from Canadian corporations, and distributed them to Canadian Olympic hopefuls. That successful project turned into the "See You in Salt Lake Fund," the "See You in Athens Fund," and eventually the "See You in Torino Fund." In total, Roos has already distributed about three million dollars directly to about 500 Canadian athletes. The amount of each distribution depends on the total amount raised, but we're talking about thousands of dollars per athlete. That's a significant amount for a Canadian amateur athlete.

Roos and the people who work for her have also been quite successful at building their brand. If you read the sports pages in Canadian newspapers, you may remember a series of print ads that raised a few eyebrows by comparing elite athletes to the homeless. Those were followed by a pair of dramatic television spots, entitled "Tears" and "Thoughts."

Those two commercials make a very thinly-veiled allusion to the Olympic games; combined with the "See You In Athens" name, it's difficult to argue that Roos isn't using the Olympics as a selling point for her fundraising. And in Canada, the Olympic Games and associated trademarks are the property of the COC.

I won't pretend to understand all of the legal issues here, but the COC has stepped in and claimed the "See You In" name as its own. Clearly, they did that for the sole purpose of stopping Roos from using the name. Their action has been called "punitive and petty" in the Toronto Sun, and last Friday night on CBC television they got a few more heaping helpings of abuse:

It's crazy. Why would you want to see something that's helping so many people and doing nothing negative go on? If she didn't exist, we would have five, six less medals at the last Olympics. If you want to get rid of Jane, what are you going to replace her with? It's not going to happen. If you're going to get rid of the fund, where's that gap going to be filled? It's a necessary part of the Canadian sports system. — Adam van Koeverden, Olympic gold medallist
Right now for the existence of this fund, we have to get behind it. The COC can't attack its own athletes. It can't attack the Olympians. — Jake Wetzel, Olympic medallist
She embarrassed them. They said, oh, look at what this lovely woman is doing by herself. Maybe we better copy it, but first we better cut her head off. Oh, come on. There was a big misconception in Canada. The misconception is that the Canadian Olympic Committee looks after athletes, amateur athletes in Canada. They do not. — Paul Henderson, former member of the COC

Well, all of this is a bit hyperbolic, which I'll get to in a minute; but did the COC do wrong by Canadian athletes here, or not? My first thought was that the COC ought to have played nice on this. They've been watching Roos flirt with the Olympics for quite a while now. Why not just approach her about licensing the "See You In …" name? Surely everybody is working toward the same goal here, and the COC shouldn't object to some extra fundraising for athletes. License the name to Roos for a token fee, and everybody's happy — maybe the COC could even be listed as a fund sponsor. What would be the harm?

Well, the harm comes when Roos' corporate sponsors are in direct competition with the COC's:

Credit card giant Visa paid $100-million (U.S.) to be an official IOC sponsor. Rival MasterCard put $500,000 (Canadian) into Roos's fund and could say it was supporting Canada's team, though it had to stop short of referring to the Olympics.

Now let's think about how Canada's athletes would react to that situation if the Mastercard donation wasn't going directly into their pockets. If Mastercard was using scenes from the Olympics, or the Olympic rings, or even the word Olympic in their advertising, and they weren't an official Olympic sponsor, the athletes would be lining up to support the COC. They know, or they should, that the COC is a very important source of support for amateur sport in Canada, and they know that the COC derives its income from its ability to license the Olympic brand. Mastercard's cheap entry into the market weakens the COC's position and reduces the value of the official Olympic sponsorship. Money lost to the COC is money lost to amateur sport; in this particular case, the athletes are reaping a small gain, but risking a large loss. What would happen if all of the COC's official Olympic sponsors decided to go the "unofficial" route? That would be a big net loss for sport, because the COC puts a lot more money into the system than the "See You In …" fund.

It's true, as Paul Henderson says, that the COC does not put a lot of money directly into the hands of Canadian athletes. They distribute funding indirectly though the NSOs. (It's also true that there is some public misconception about this fact, which Roos has worked hard to correct.) And it might be true that more amateur sport money should go right to the athletes, and not to the NSOs. But the fact remains that if you raise money based on a link to the Olympics, you're doing it at the COC's expense. And that, in the big picture, is not good for Canada's athletes.

Now, as for the end-of-the-world scenarios of Wetzel and van Koeverden, that's really just another example of Roos' marketing genius. Because of course taking away the name is not the same as taking away the fund. Roos and her team, while they pursue their legal challenge against the COC, have already created the CAN (Canadian Athletes Now) Fund; and frankly, I think it's a great change. I found the old strategy, centred around the claim that "70% of Canadian athletes live below the poverty line," to be excessively negative, not to mention intellectually dishonest. The new print campaign is a refreshing about-face, concentrating instead on the positive impact of the funding. And with her PR skills, Roos has also been able to rally her anti-establishment image, which won't hurt one bit.

I just hope that these guys like the name.

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